Systematic Biblical Doctrine

That’s the title of a course I teach at the undergraduate level at Lipscomb University. I don’t particularly like the title. Here’s why.

“Doctrine” rings hollow at best for most students and creates hostile suspicion for many. The word has a polemical ring in the ears of many such that it conjures up images of dueling antagonists engaged in heated debate where the loser goes to Hell.

“Systematic” sounds, well, too systematic. It sounds like we are going to put the Bible into its “proper” order–an order that we impose through a preconcevived “system” (an order perhaps borrowed from some philosophical construct). This prioritizes “system” over text; it postulates an “order” to which the text must conform. This is the discipline of onto-theology so that theology is shaped by a prior commitment to an ontology. Theology then becomes a form of philosophical anthropology, which means it is not theology at all but “anthropology in a loud voice” (so Barth’s critique of classic liberalism).

So, “Systematic Biblical Doctrine” sounds like a code word for imposing my system upon the biblical text in order to draw boundaries that define the “right” group. Consequently, I don’t like it. It is not what I think theology should do.

Rather, I would rather proceed with a more narrative approach where theology is the exploration of the biblical plot–to trace the redemptive-historical work of God through creation, Israel, Christ and Church into the Eschaton. It follows the plot line. Theology tells the story and seeks to absorb the contemporary world into the plot of the story.

Is there something systematic about theology? Well, of course. There is an order. But, it seems to me, that order is best understood as redemptive-historical plot, or drama, or story, or narrative. The order is not that of a “system” or a philosophical/metaphysical grid, but the order of a narrative plot in which we live or a drama that we perform.

6 Responses to “Systematic Biblical Doctrine”

  1.   KMiV Says:

    You got tagged John Mark!

    By the way–I like your explanation in this blog. I remember taking your class in Philosophy of Relgion. Scared me to death since I had just moved up from Missouri. You always make the complex so much easier to understand!

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Ron, there is still a place for philosophy of religion, but it must be a maidservant rather than the regent. Sorry to have scared you. 🙂

  3.   JD Says:

    wish I could take that class. Sounds fascinating. Glad to see you post again!

  4.   Amanda Says:

    You may or may not remember me (I had you for Systematic my senior year at LU–that would have been spring of 2003). I liked you as a prof, but I didn’t like the class too much (no offense). My peers who were born-and-raised into the CoC thought the class very useful and practical and had this eye-opening “whadda mean we have doctrine?” experience. I agreed with the subject matter that was taught, but because my background is so different than most LU students, the material just wasn’t that useful to me.

    Oh–and I missed you when you spoke at Otter the other night. I really wanted to be there but had a scheduling conflict. I’m getting the tape, though!

  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think I’m offended, Amanada. 🙂 Not really.

    Glad to have you as a reader….I’m always glad to see former students still “tracking” their old prof.

    Goes for you, too, Ron and JD!


    John Mark

  6.   Adam Says:

    I’m in your graduate class on the same subject this semester. I almost didn’t take it just becuase the title of the course turned me off. I’m certainly glad I actually read the syllabus. I’m genuinely excited about this and am even enjoying the “online” stuff related to the course.

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